It may seem very doubtful, whether the progress and the vicissitudes of the elegant arts can be referred to the operation of general laws, with the same plausibility as the exertions of the more robust faculties of the human mind, in the severer forms of science and of useful art. The action of fancy and taste seems to be affected by causes too various and minute to be enumerated with sufficient completeness for the purposes of philosophical theory. To explain them, may appear to be as hopeless an attempt, as to account for one summer being more warm and genial than another. The difficulty must be owned to be great. It renders complete explanations impossible; and it would be insurmountable, even in framing the most general outline of theory, if the various forms assumed by imagination, in the fine arts, did not depend on some of the most conspicuous, as well as powerful agents in the moral world. They arise from revolutions of popular sentiments. They are connected with the opinions of the age, and with the manners of the relined class, as certainly, though not as much, as with the passions of the multitude. The comedy of a polished monarchy, never could be of the same character with that of a bold and tumultuous democracy. Changes of religion and of government, civil or foreign wars, conquests which derive splendour from distance, or extent, or difficulty; — long tranquillity; — all these, and indeed every conceivable modification of the state of a community show themselves in the tone of its poetry, and leave long and deep traces on every part of its literature. Geometry is the same, not only at London and Paris, but in the extremes of Athens and Samarcand. But the state of the general feeling in England, at this moment, requires a different poetry from that which delighted our ancestors in the time of Luther or Alfred. It ought to be needless to guard this language from misconception, by an observation, so obviously implied, as that there are some qualities which must be common to all delightful poems of every time and country.
During the greater part of the eighteenth century, the connexion of the character of English poetry, with the state of the country, was very easily traced. The period which extended from the English to the French Revolution, was the golden age of authentic history. Governments were secure, nations tranquil, improvements rapid, manners mild beyond the example of any former age. The English nation which possessed the greatest of all human blessings, a wisely constructed popular Government, necessarily enjoyed the largest share of every other benefit. The tranquillity of that fortunate period was not disturbed by any of those calamitous, or even extraordinary events, which excite the imagination and inflame the passions. No age was more exempt from the prevalence of any species of popular enthusiasm. Poetry, in this state of things, partook of that calm, argumentative, moral, and directly useful character into which it naturally subsides, when there are no events which call up the higher passions; — when every talent is allured into the immediate service of a prosperous and improving society; — and when wit, taste, diffused literature, and fastidious criticism, combine to deter the young writer from the more arduous enterprises of poetical genius. In such an age, every art becomes rational. Reason is the power which presides in a calm: But reason guides, rather than impels; and, though it must regulate every exertion of genius, it never can rouse it to vigorous action.
The school of Dryden and Pope, which prevailed till a very late period of the last century, is neither the most poetical nor the most national part of our literary annals. These great poets sometimes indeed ventured into the regions of pure poetry. But their general character is, that "not in fancy's maze they wandered long;" that they rather approached the elegant correctness of our Continental neighbours, than supported the daring flight which, in the former age, had borne English poetry to a sublimer elevation, than that of any other modern people of the West. Towards the middle of the eighteenth century, great, though quiet changes, began to manifest themselves in the republic of letters, in every European nation which retained any portion of mental activity. About that time, the exclusive authority of our great rhyming poets began to be weakened; new tastes and fashions began to show themselves in the political world. A school of poetry must have prevailed long enough, to be probably on the verge of downfal, before its practice be embodied in a correspondent system of criticism. Johnson was the critic of our second poetical school. As far as his prejudices of a political or religious kind did not disqualify him for all criticism, he was admirably fitted by nature to be the critic of this species of poetry. Without more imagination, sensibility, or delicacy than it required, — not always with perhaps quite enough for its higher parts, — he possessed sagacity, shrewdness, experience, knowledge of mankind, a taste for rational and orderly compositions, and a disposition to accept, instead of poetry, that lofty and vigorous declamation in harmonious verse, of which he himself was capable, and to which his great masters sometimes descended. His spontaneous admiration scarcely soared above Dryden. "Merit of a loftier class he rather saw than felt." Shakespeare has transcendent excellence of every sort, and for every critic, except those who are repelled by the faults which usually attend sublime virtues, — character and manners, morality and prudence, as well as imagery and passion Johnson did indeed perform a vigorous act of reluctant justice towards Milton; but it was a proof, to use his own words, that
At length our mighty Bard's victorious lays
Fill the loud voice of universal praise;
And baffled Spite, with hopeless anguish dumb,
Yields to renown the centuries to come!
The deformities of the life of Gray ought not to be ascribed to jealousy — for Johnson's mind, though coarse, was not mean — but to the prejudices of his University, his faction and his poetical sect: and this last bigotry is the more remarkable, because it is exerted against the most skilful and tasteful of innovators, who, in reviving more poetical subjects and a more splendid diction, has employed more care and finish, than those who aimed only at correctness.
The interval which elapsed between the death of Goldsmith and the rise of Cowper, is perhaps more barren than any other twelve years in the history of our poetry since the accession of Elizabeth. It seemed as if the fertile soil was at length exhausted. But it had in fact only ceased to exhibit its accustomed produce. The established Poetry had worn out either its own resources, or the constancy of its readers. Former attempts to introduce novelty had been either too weak, or too early. Neither the beautiful fancy of Collins, nor the learned and ingenious industry of Warton, nor even the union of sublime genius with consummate art in Gray, had produced a general change in poetical composition. But the fulness of time was approaching; and a revolution has been accomplished, of which the commencement nearly coincides (not as we conceive accidentally) with that of the political revolution which has changed the character as well as the condition of Europe. It has been a thousand times observed, that nations become weary even of excellence, and seek a new way of writing, though it should be a worse. But besides the operation of satiety — the general cause of literary revolutions — several particular circumstances seem to have affected the late chances of our poetical taste; of which, two are more conspicuous than the rest.
In the natural progress of society, the songs which are the effusion of the feelings of a rude tribe, are gradually polished into a Poetry still retaining the marks of those national opinions, sentiments and manners, from which it originally sprung. The plants are improved by cultivation; but they are still the native produce of the soil. The only perfect example which we know, of this sort, is Greece. Knowledge and useful art, and perhaps in a great measure religion, the Greeks received from the East. But as they studied no foreign language, it was impossible that any foreign literature should influence the progress of theirs. Not even the name of a Persian, Assyrian, Phenician, or Egyptian poet is alluded to by a Greek writer; — the Greek poetry was therefore wholly national. The Pelasgic ballads were insensibly formed into Epic, and Tragic, and Lyric poems: But the heroes, the opinions, the customs, continued as exclusively Grecian, as they had been when the Hellenic minstrels knew little beyond the Adriatic and the Egean. The literature of Rome was a copy from that of Greece. When the classical studies revived amidst the chivalrous manners and feudal institutions of Gothic Europe, the imitation of ancient poets struggled against the power of modern sentiments, with various event, in different times and countries, — but every where in such a manner, as to give somewhat of an artificial and exotic character to poetry. Jupiter and the Muses appeared in the poems of Christian nations. The feelings and principles of democracies were copied by the gentlemen of Teutonic monarchies or aristocracies. The sentiments of the poet in his verse, were not those which actuated him in his conduct. The forms and rules of composition were borrowed from antiquity, instead of spontaneously arising from the manner of thinking of modern communities. In Italy, when letters first revived, the chivalrous principle was too near the period of its full vigour, to be oppressed by the foreign learning. Ancient ornaments were borrowed, — but the romantic form was prevalent; and where the forms were classical, the spirit continued to be romantic. The structure of Tasso's poem was that of the Grecian epic. But his heroes were Christian Knights. French poetry having been somewhat unaccountably late in its rise, and slow in its progress, reached its brilliant period, when all Europe had considerably lost its ancient characteristic principles, and was fully impregnated with classical ideas. Hence it acquired faultless elegance. Hence also it became less natural — more timid and more imitative — more like a feeble translation of Roman poetry. The first age of English poetry, in the reign of Elizabeth, displayed a combination, fantastic enough, of chivalrous fancy and feeling with classical pedantry: But, upon the whole, the native genius was unsubdued; and the poems of that age, with all their faults, and partly perhaps from their faults, are the most national part of our poetry, as they undoubtedly contain its highest beauties. From the accession of James, to the civil war, the glory of Shakespeare turned the whole national genius to the drama; and, after the Restoration, a new and classical school arose, under whom our old and peculiar literature was abandoned, and almost forgotten. But all imported tastes in literature must be in some measure superficial. The poetry which grew in the bosoms of a people is always capable of being revived by a skilful hand. When the brilliant and poignant lines of Pope began to pall on the public ear, it was natural that we should revert to the cultivation of our indigenous poetry.
Nor was this the sole, or perhaps the chief, agent which was working a poetical change. As the condition and character of the former age had produced an argumentative, didactic, sententious, prudential, and satirical poetry; so, the approaches to a new order (or rather at first disorder) in political society, were attended by correspondent movements in the poetical world. — Bolder speculations began to prevail: and we shall soon have a more proper occasion to remark how the feelings, which were the forerunners of civil mutation, called for a sterner and more lofty system of ethics; and to point out the slender but important threads which bound them to the most abstruse researches of metaphysics. A combination of the science and art of the tranquil period, with the hardy enterprizes of that which succeeded, gave rise to scientific poems, in which a bold attempt was made, by the mere force of diction, to give a poetical interest and elevation to the coldest parts of knowledge — and to those arts which have been hitherto considered as the meanest. Having been forced above their natural place by the first wonder, they have not yet recovered from the subsequent depression; nor will a similar attempt be successful, without a more temperate use of power over style, — until the diffusion of' physical knowledge renders it familiar to the popular imagination, — and till the prodigies worked by the mechanical arts shall have bestowed on them a character of grandeur.
As the agitation of men's minds approached the period of explosion, its effects on literature became more visible. The desire of strong emotion succeeded to the solicitude to avoid disgust. Fictions, both dramatic and narrative, were formed according to the school of Rousseau and Goethe. The mixture of comic and tragic pictures once more displayed itself; as in the antient and national drama. The sublime and energetic feelings of devotion began to be more frequently associated with poetry. The tendency of political speculation concurred in directing the mind of the poet to the intense and undisguised passions of the uneducated, which fastidious politeness had excluded from the subjects of poetical imitation.
The history of nations unlike ourselves — the fantastic mythology and ferocious superstition of distant times and countries — or the legends of our own antique faith, and the romances of our fabulous and heroic ages, became favourite themes of poetry. Traces of a higher order of feeling appeared in the contemplations in which the poet indulged, and in the events and scenes which he delighted to describe. The fire with which a chivalrous tale was told, made the reader inattentive to negligences in the story or the style. Poetry became more devout, more contemplative, more mystical, more visionary, — more alien from the taste of those whose poetry is only a polished prosaic verse, — more full of antique superstition, and more prone to daring innovation, — painting both coarser realities and purer imaginations, than she had before hazarded. — sometimes buried in the profound quiet required by the dreams of fancy, — sometimes turbulent and martial, — seeking "fierce wars and faithful loves" in those times long past, when the frequency of the most dreadful dangers produced heroic energy and the ardour of faithful affection.
Even the direction given to the traveller by the accidents of war has not been without its influence. Greece, the mother of freedom and of poetry in the west, which had long employed only the antiquary, the artist, and the philologist, was at length destined, after an interval of many silent and inglorious ages, to awaken the genius of a poet. Full of enthusiasm for those perfect forms of heroism and liberty, which his imagination had placed in the recesses of antiquity, he gave vent to his impatience of the imperfections of living men and real institutions: in an original strain of sublime satire, which clothes moral anger in imagery of an almost horrible grandeur; and which, though it cannot coincide with the estimate of reason, yet could only flow from that worship of perfection, which is the soul of all true poetry.
The tendency of poetry to become national, was in more that one case remarkable. While the Scottish middle age inspired the most popular poet perhaps of the 18th century, the national genius of Ireland at length found a poetical representative, whose exquisite ear, and flexible fancy, wantoned in all the varieties poetical luxury, from the levities to the fondness of love, from polished pleasantry to ardent passion, and from the social joy of private life to a tender and mournful patriotism, taught by the melancholy fortunes of an illustrious country; — with a range adapted to every nerve in the composition of a people susceptible of all feelings which have the colour of generosity, and more exempt probably than any other from degrading and unpoetical vices.
The failure of innumerable adventurers is inevitable, in literary, as well as in political Revolutions. The inventor seldom perfects his invention. The uncouthness of the novelty, the clumsiness with which it is managed by an unpractised hand, and the dogmatical contempt of criticism natural to the pride and enthusiasm of the innovator, combine to expose him to ridicule, and generally terminate in his being admired, though warmly, by few of his contemporaries — remembered only occasionally in after times — and supplanted in general estimation by more cautious and skilful imitators. With the very reverse of unfriendly feelings, we observe that erroneous theories respecting poetical diction — exclusive and proscriptive notions in criticism, which in adding new provinces to poetry would deprive her of ancient dominions and lawful instruments of rule — and a neglect of that extreme regard to general sympathy, and even accidental prejudice, which is necessary to guard poetical novelties against their natural enemy the satirist — have powerfully counteracted an attempt, equally moral and philosophical, made by a writer of undisputed poetical genius, to enlarge the territories of art, by unfolding the poetical interest which lies latent in the common acts of the humblest men, and in the most ordinary modes of feeling, as well as in the most familiar scenes of nature.
The various opinions which may naturally be formed of the merit of individual writers, form no necessary part of our consideration. We consider the present as one of the most flourishing periods of English poetry. But those who condemn all contemporary poets, need not on that account dissent from our speculations. It is sufficient to have proved the reality, and in part perhaps to have explained the origin, of a literary revolution. At no time does the success of writer bear so uncertain a proportion to their genius, as when the rules of judging and the habits of feeling are unsettled.
It is not uninteresting, even as a matter of speculation, to observe the fortune of a poem which, like the Pleasures of Memory, appeared at the commencement of this literary revolution, without paying court to the revolutionary tastes, or seeking distinction by resistance to them. It borrowed no aid either from prejudice or innovation. It neither copied the fashion of the age which was passing away, nor offered any homage to the rising novelties. It resembles, only in measure, the poems of the eighteenth century, which were written in heroic rhyme. Neither the brilliant sententiousness of Pope, nor the frequent languor and negligence perhaps inseparable from the exquisite nature of Goldsmith, could be traced in a poem, from which taste and labour equally banished mannerism and inequality. It was patronized by no sect or faction. It was neither imposed on the public by any literary cabal, nor forced into notice by the noisy anger of conspicuous enemies. Yet, destitute as it was of every foreign help, it acquired a popularity originally very great; and which has not only continued amidst extraordinary fluctuation of general taste, but increased amidst a succession of formidable competitors, No production, so popular, was probably ever so little censured by criticism. It was approved by the critics, as much as read and applauded by the people; and thus seemed to combine the applause of Contemporaries with the suffrage of the representatives of Posterity.
It is needless to make extracts from a poem which is familiar to every reader. In selection, indeed, no two readers would probably agree. But the description of the Gypsies — of the Boy quitting his Father's house — and of the Savoyard recollecting the mountainous scenery of his country — and the descriptive commencement of the Tale in Cumberland, have remained most deeply impressed on our minds. We should be disposed to quote the following verses, as not surpassed, in pure and chaste elegance, by any English lines.
When Joy's bright sun has shed his evening ray,
And Hope's delusive meteors cease to play;
When clouds on clouds the smiling prospect close,
Still through the gloom thy star serenely glows:
Like yon fair orb she gilds the brow of Night
With the mild magic of reflected light.
The conclusion of the fine passage on the Veterans at Greenwich and Chelsea, has a pensive dignity which beautifully corresponds with the scene.
Long have ye known Reflection's genial ray
Gild the calm close of Valour's various day.
And we cannot resist the pleasure of quoting the moral, tender, and elegant lines which close the Poems.
Lighter than air, Hope's summer-visions fly,
If but a fleeting cloud obscure the sky;
If but a beam of sober Reason play,
Lo, Fancy's fairy frost-work melts away!
But can the wiles of Art, the grasp of Power,
Snatch the rich relics of a well-spent hour
These, when the trembling spirit wings her flight,
Pour round her path a stream of living light;
And gild those pure and perfect realms of rest,
Where Virtue triumphs, and her sons are blest!
The descriptive passages of this classical poem, require indeed a closer inspection, and a more exercised eye, than those of some celebrated contemporaries who sacrifice elegance to effect, and whose figures stand out in bold relief, from the general roughness of their more unfinished compositions. And in the moral parts, there is often discoverable a Virgilian art, which suggests, rather than displays, the various and contrasted scenes of human life, — and adds to the power of language by a certain air of reflection and modesty, in the preference of measured terms over those of more apparent energy.
In the Epistle to a Friend, the Panegyric on Engraving — the View from the Poet's Country-house — the Bee-hives of the Loire — and the Rustic Bath, will immediately present themselves to the recollection of most poetical readers.
In the View from the House, the scene is neither delightful from very superior beauty, nor striking by singularity, nor powerful from reminding us of terrible passions or memorable deeds. It consists of the more ordinary of the beautiful features of Nature, neither exaggerated nor represented with curious minuteness, but exhibited with picturesque elegance, in connexion with those tranquil emotions which they call up in the calm order of a virtuous mind, in every condition of society and of life.
The Verses on the Torso, are in a more severe style. The Fragment of a Divine Artist, which awakened the genius of Michael Angelo, seems to disdain ornament.
And dost thou still, thou mass of breathing stone,
(Thy giant limbs to Night and Chaos hurl'd)
Still sit as on the fragment of a World;
Surviving all, majestic and alone?
What though the Spirits of the North, that swept
Rome from the earth, when in her pomp she slept,
Smote thee with fury, and thy headless trunk
Deep in the dust 'mid tower and temple sunk;
Soon to subdue mankind 'twas thine to rise,
Still, still unquell'd thy glorious energies
Aspiring minds, with thee conversing, caught
Bright revelations of the Good they sought;
By thee that long-lost spell in secret given,
To draw down Gods, and lift the soul to Heaven!
If poetical merit bore any proportion to magnitude, "the Sick Chamber," and "the Butterfly," would deserve no attention: But it would be difficult to name two small poems, by the same writer, in which he has attained such high degrees of kinds of excellence so dissimilar. The first has a truth of detail, which, considered merely as painting, is admirable; but assumes a higher character, when it is felt to be that minute remembrance, with which affection recollects every circumstance that could influence a beloved sufferer. Though the morality which concludes the second, be in itself very beautiful, it may be doubted whether the verses would not have left a more unmixed delight, if the address had remained as a mere sport of fancy, without the seriousness of an object, or an application.
The Verses, written in Westminster Abbey, are surrounded by dangerous recollections. They aspire to commemorate Fox — and to copy some of the grandest thoughts in the most sublime work of Bossuet. Nothing can satisfy the expectation awakened by such names. Yet we venture to quote the following lines, with the assurance, that there are some of them which would be most envied by the best writers of this age.
Friend of the Absent! Guardian of the Dead!
Who but would hero their sacred sorrows shed?
(Such as He shed on NELSON'S closing grave;
How soon to claim the sympathy He gave!)
In Him, resentful of another's wrong,
The dumb were eloquent, the feeble strong.
Truth from his lips a charm celestial drew—
Ah, who so mighty and so gentle too?
The scenery of Loch Long is among the grandest in Scotland; and the following description of it shows the power of feeling and painting. Perhaps, however, it partly owes its insertion here, to individual recollections, as well as national sentiments. In this island, the taste for Nature has grown with the progress of refinement. It is most alive in those who are most brilliantly distinguished in social and active life. It elevates the mind above the meanness which it might contract in the rivalship for praise; and preserves those habits of reflection and sensibility, which receive so many rude shocks in the coarse contests of the world. Not many summer hours can be passed in the most mountainous solitudes of Scotland, without meeting some who are worthy to be remembered with the sublime objects of Nature which they had travelled so far to admire.
Upon another shore I stood,
And look'd upon another flood;
Great Ocean's self! ('Tis He, who fills
That vast and awful depth of hills;)
Where many an elf was playing round,
Who treads unshod his classic ground;
And speaks, his native rocks among,
As FINGAL spoke, and OSSIAN sung.
Night fell; and dark and darker grew
That narrow sea, that narrow sky,
As o'er the glimmering waves we flew,
The sea-bird rustling, wailing by.
And now the grampus, half descried,
Black and huge above the tide;
The cliffs and promontories there,
Front to front, and broad and bare,
Each beyond each, with giant-feet
Advancing as in haste to meet;
The shatter'd fortress, whence the Dane
Blew his shrill blast, nor rush'd in vain,
Tyrant of the drear domain;
All into midnight-shadow sweep—
When day springs upward from the deep!
Kindling the waters in its flight,
The prow wakes splendour; and the oar,
That rose and fell unseen before,
Flashes in a sea of light!
Glad sign, and sure! for now we hail
Thy flowers, Glenfinart, in the gale;
And bright indeed the path should be,
That leads to Friendship and to Thee!
Oh blest retreat, and sacred too!
Sacred as when the bell of prayer
Toll'd duly on the desert air,
And crosses deck'd thy summits blue.
Oft, like some lov'd romantic tale,
Oft shall my weary mind recall,
Amid the hum and stir of men,
Thy beechen grove and waterfall,
Thy ferry with its gliding sail,
And Her — the Lady of the Glen!
The most conspicuous of the novelties of this volume, is the poem or poems, entitled, "Fragments of the Voyage of Columbus." The subject of this poem is, politically, or philosophically, considered among the most important in the annals of mankind. The introduction of Christianity (humanly viewed) — the irruption of the Northern barbarians — the contest between the Christian and Mussulman nations in Syria — the two inventions of Gunpowder and Printing — the emancipation of the human understanding by the Reformation — the discovery of America, and of a maritime passage to Asia in the last ten years of the 15th century — are the events which have produced the greatest and most durable effects, since the establishment of civilization, and the consequent commencement of authentic history. But the poetical capabilities of an event bear no proportion to historical importance. None of the consequences that do not strike the senses or the fancy, can interest the poet. The greatest of the transactions above enumerated, are obviously incapable of entering into poetry. The Crusades were not without permanent effects on the state of men: But their poetical interest does not arise from these effects; — and it immeasurably surpasses them.
Whether the voyage of Columbus be destined to be for ever incapable of becoming the subject of an Epic poem, is a question which we have scarcely the means of answering. The success of great writers has often s little corresponded with the promise of their subject, that we might be almost tempted to think the choice of a subject indifferent. The story of Hamlet, or Paradise Lost, would beforehand have been pronounced to be unmanageable. Perhaps the genius of Shakespeare and of Milton has rather compensated for the incorrigible defects of ungrateful subjects, than conquered them. The course of ages may produce the poetical genius — the historical materials and the national feelings, for an American Epic poem. There is yet but one State in America, and that State is hardly become a nation. At some future period, when every part of the continent has been the scene of memorable events, when the discovery and conquest have receded into that legendary dimness which allows fancy to mould them at her pleasure, the early history of America may afford scope for the genius of a thousand national poets; and while some may soften the cruelty which darkens the daring energy of Cortez and Pizarro — while others may, in perhaps new forms of poetry, ennoble the pacific conquests of Penn — and while the genius, the exploits, and the fate of Raleigh, may render his establishments probably the most alluring of American subjects — every inhabitant of the new world will turn his eyes with filial reverence towards Columbus, — and regard, with equal enthusiasm, the voyage winch laid the foundation of so many states, and peopled a continent with civilized men. — Most epic subjects, but especially such a subject as Columbus, require either the fire of an actor in the scene, or the religious reverence of a very distant posterity. Homer, as well as Ercilia, and Camoens, show what may be done by an epic poet who himself feels the passions of his heroes. It must not be denied, that Virgil has borrowed a colour of refinement from the Court of Augustus, in painting the age of Priam and of Dido. Evander is a solitary and exquisite model of primitive manners, divested of grossness, without losing their simplicity. But to an European poet, in this age of the world, the Voyage of Columbus is too naked and too exactly defined by history. It has no variety, scarcely any succession of events. It consists of one scene, during which two or three simple passions continue in a state of the highest excitement. It is a voyage with intense anxiety in every bosom, controlled by magnanimous fortitude in the leader, and producing among his followers a fear sometimes submissive, sometimes mutinous, always ignoble. It admits no variety of character — no unexpected revolutions; and even the issue — the sight of undiscovered land, though of unspeakable importance, and admirably adapted to some kinds of poetry, is not an event of such outward dignity and splendour as ought naturally to close the active and brilliant course of an Epic poem.
The author has accordingly not attempted such a poem; he professes only to offer fragments of the Voyage. To prove that these fragments have not the interest of a story, is a mere waste of critical ingenuity. The very title of Fragments, is a disavowal of all pretension to such an interest. Many of them have the appearance of having been originally members of a Lyric poem on the voyage of Columbus; and they still retain that predominant character. They are not so much parts of a narrative, as the sentiments or the visions of the poet. In the progress of insertion and amplification, they seem to have become separate poems — Lyrical, Descriptive and Dramatic — on various events and scenes of the voyage. It cannot be true, that, because the whole is not a favourable subject for Epic poetry, many of the parts should not be well adapted to such poems. Each fragment is to be tried by its separate excellence, fart of that excellence will consist in their relation and allusion to each other, which naturally arises from affinity of subject. If there be any other criterion by which such poems are to be tried, it can only be, their fitness to be inserted into an epic poem, if such a poem could be founded upon the event. The title, Fragments, implies also a renunciation of all claim to whatever merit may arise from the artifices of connexion and transition. This will be considered as matter of very serious reproach, by those who adopt the maxim of French criticism — that, difficulty conquered, is the chief triumph of talent — who, to be consistent with themselves, ought to consider the most minute expedient of art as superior to the noblest exertions of genius.
To examine the general question of epic machinery, on an occasion like the present, would be impertinent. It is natural that the Fragments should give a specimen of the marvellous as well as of the other constituents of epic fiction. We may however observe, that it is neither the intention nor the tendency of poetical machinery, to supersede second causes — to fetter the will — and to make human creatures appear as the mere instruments of Destiny. It is introduced, to satisfy that insatiable demand for t nature more exalted than that which we know by experience — which creates all poetry — and which is most active in its highest species, and in its most perfect productions. It is not to account for the thoughts and feelings, that the superhuman agents are brought down upon earth. It is rather for the contrary purpose, of lifting them into a mysterious dignity beyond the cognizance of reason. There is a material difference between the acts which superior beings perform, and the sentiments which they inspire. It is true, that when a God fights against men, there can be no uncertainty or anxiety, and consequently no interest about the event, — unless indeed in the rude theology of Homer, where Minerva may animate the Greeks, while Mars excites the Trojans. But it is quite otherwise with these divine persons inspiring passion, or represented as agents in the great phenomena of nature. Venus and Mars inspire love or valour. They give a noble origin and a dignified character to these sentiments. But the sentiments themselves act according to the laws of our nature; and their celestial source has no tendency to impair their power over human sympathy. No event, which has not too much modern vulgarity to be susceptible of alliance with poetry, can be incapable of being ennobled by that eminently poetical art which ascribes it either to the supreme will, or to the agency of beings who are greater than human. The wisdom of Columbus is neither less venerable, nor less his own, because it is supposed to flow more directly than that of other wise men, from the inspiration of heaven. The mutiny of his seamen is not less interesting or formidable because the poet traces it to the suggestion of those malignant spirits, in whom the imagination, independent of all theological doctrines, is naturally prone to personify and embody the causes of evil.
Unless, indeed, the marvellous be a part of the popular creed at the period of the action, the reader of a subsequent age will refuse to sympathize with it. His poetical faith is founded in sympathy with the poetical personages. What they believed during their lives, he suffers to enter his imagination during the moment of enthusiasm in which he adopts their feelings. Still more objectionable is a marvellous, neither believed by the reader nor by the hero; — like a great part of the machinery of the Henriad and the Lusiad, which indeed is not only absolutely ineffective, but rather dissennobles heroic fiction, by association with light and frivolous ideas. Allegorical persons (if the expression be allowed) are only in the way to become agents. The abstraction has received a faint outline of form; but it has not yet acquired those individual marks and characteristic peculiarities, which render it a really existing being. Beauty and love gradually form themselves into Venus and Cupid. To employ them in the intermediate stage through which they must pass in the course of their transformation from abstractions into deities, is an inartificial and uninteresting expedient. On the other hand, the more sublime parts of our own religion, and more especially those which are common to all religion, are too awful and too philosophical for poetical effect. It we except Paradise Lost, where all is supernatural, and where the ancestors of the human race are not strictly human beings, it must be owned that no successful attempt has been made to ally a human action with the sublimer principles of the Christian theology. Some opinions, which may perhaps, without irreverence, be said to be rather appendages to the Christian system, than essential parts of it, are in that sort of intermediate state which fits them for the purposes of poetry; — sufficiently exalted to ennoble those human actions with which they are blended — and no so exactly defined, nor so deeply revered, as to be inconsistent with the liberty of imagination. The guardian angels, in the project of Dryden, had the inconvenience of having never taken any deep root in popular belief. The agency of evil spirits, firmly believed in the age of Columbus, seems to afford the only species of machinery which can be introduced into his voyage. With the truth of facts poetry can have no concern; but the truth of manners is necessary to its persons — and its marvellous must be such as these persons believed. If the minute investigations of the notes to this poem had related to historical details, they would have been insignificant; but they are intended to justify the human and the supernatural parts of it, by an appeal to the manners and to the opinions of the age.
Having premised these general observations, it is now only necessary to quote some of these Fragments, that the reader, if he adopt the above principles, may have the means of applying them to this poem.
The proposition — the first appearance of the ships and the trade-wind — in the First Canto, appear to us to be passages, which, in beauty of conception and execution, it is not easy to equal.
Say who first pass'd the portals of the West,
And the great Secret of the Deep possess'd;
Who first the standard of his Faith unfurl'd
On the dread confines of an unknown World;
Sung ere his coming — and by Heav'n design'd
To lift the veil that cover'd half mankind!...
'Twas night. The Moon, o'er the wide wave, disclos'd
Her awful face; and Nature's self repos'd;
When, slowly rising in the azure sky,
Three white sails shone — but to no mortal eye,
Entering a boundless sea. In slumber cast,
The very ship-boy, on the dizzy mast,
Half breath'd his orisons! Alone uuchang'd,
Calmly, beneath, the great Commander rang'd,
Thoughtful not sad, "Thy will be done!" he cried.—
He spoke, and, at his call, a mighty Wind,
Not like the fitful blast, with fury blind,
But deep, majestic, in its destin'd course,
Rush'd with unerring, unrelenting force,
From the bright East. Tides duly ebb'd and flow'd;
Stars rose and set; and new horizons glow'd;
Yet still it blew! As with primeval sway,
Still did its ample spirit, night and day,
Move on the waters!
In the following verses a grand picture is exhibited with the simplicity which becomes it.
Yet who but He undaunted could explore
A world of waves — a sea without a shore,
Trackless and vast and wild as that reveal'd
When round the Ark the birds of tempest wheel'd;
When all was still in the destroying hour—
No trace of man! no vestige of his power!
The character of Columbus can scarcely be presented in a light more venerable than in the opening lines of the 5th Canto.
War and the Great in War let others sing,
Havoc and spoil, and tears and triumphing;
The morning-march that flashes to the sun,
The feast of vultures when the day is done;
And the strange tale of many slain for one!
I sing a Man, amidst his sufferings here,
Who watch'd and serv'd in humbleness ad fear;
Gentle to others, to himself severe....
Still unsubdued by Danger's varying form,
Still, as unconscious of the coming storm,
He look'd elate! His beard, his mien sublime,
Shadow'd by Age — by Age before the time,
From many a sorrow borne in many a clime,
Mov'd every heart.
The beauty of the verses which describe the first sight of the New World, has been universally acknowledged. But they have been somewhat hastily supposed to represent the same event as occurring at different times — in the evening, and at midnight. It is obvious, however, that the repugnance is only in the imagination of the critic. Evening is described as the hour of vespers; and midnight, as the moment when a light is discovered on the unknown shore. Nothing is more natural, than that the evening which was to precede so important a night, should be painted by the poet.
Twice in the zenith blaz'd the orb of light;
No shade, all sun, insufferably bright!
Then the long line found rest-in coral groves
Silent and dark, where the sea-lion roves
And all on deck, kindling to life again,
Sent forth their anxious spirits o'er the main.
"But whence, as wafted from Elysium, whence
These perfumes, strangers to the raptur'd sense?
These boughs of gold, and fruits of heavenly hue,
Tinging with vermeil light the billows blue?
And say, oh say, (how blest the eye that spied,
The hand that snatch'd it sparkling in the tide)
Whose cunning carv'd this vegetable bowl,
Symbol of social rites, and intercourse of soul?"...
Such to their grateful ear the gush of springs,
Who course the ostrich, as away she wings;
Sons of the desert! who delight to dwell
Mid kneeling camels round the sacred well.
The sails were furl'd: with many a melting close,
Solemn and slow the evening anthem rose,
Rose to the Virgin. 'Twas the hour of day,
When setting suns o'er summer-seas display
A path of glory, opening in the west
To golden climes, and islands of the blest;
And human voices, on the silent air,
Went o'er the waves in songs of gladness there!
Chosen of Men 'twas thine, at noon of night,
First from the prow to hail the glimmering light.
"PEDRO! RODRIGO! there, methought, it shone!
There — in the west! and now, alas, 'tis gone!—
'Twas all a dream! we gaze and gaze in vain!
—But mark and speak not, there it comes again!
It moves! — what form unseen, what being there
With torch-like lustre fires the murky air?
His instincts, passions, say, how like our own?
Oh! when will day reveal a world unknown?"
The whole vision which concludes the poem, is eminently beautiful. But it is needless to prolong our extracts from a volume, which must long ago have been in the hands of every reader of this Review. The extracts already given will show, that it always has consummate elegance, and often unaffected grandeur. The author is not one of those poets who is flat for a hundred lines, in order to heighten the apparent elevation of one more fortunate verse. He does not conduct his readers over a desert, to betray them into the temper in which they bestow the charms of Paradise on a few trees and a fountain in a green spot.
Perhaps there is no volume in our language of which it can be so truly said, as of the present, that it is equally exempt from the frailties of negligence and the vices of affectation. The exquisite polish of style is indeed more admired by the artist than by the people. The gentle and elegant pleasure which it imparts, can only be felt by a calm reason, an exercised taste, and a mind free from turbulent passions. But these beauties of execution can exist only in combination with much of the primary beauties of thought and feeling. Without a considerable portion of them, the works of the greatest genius must perish; and poets of the first rank depend on them for no small part of the perpetuity of their fame. They are permanent beauties. In poetry, though not in eloquence, it is less to rouse the passions of a moment, than to satisfy the taste of all ages.
In estimating the poetical rank of Mr. Rogers, it must not be forgotten that popularity never can arise from elegance alone. The vices of a poem may render it popular; and virtues of a faint character may be sufficient to preserve a languishing and cold reputation. But to be both popular poets and classical writers, is the rare lot of those few who are released from all solicitude about their literary fame. It often happens to successful writers, that the lustre of their first productions throws a temporary cloud over some of those which follow. Of all literary misfortunes, this is the most easily endured, and the most speedily repaired. It is generally no more than a momentary illusion produced by disappointed admiration, which expected more from the talents of the admired writer than any talents could perform.
Mr. Rogers has long passed that period of probation, during which it may be excuseable to feel some painful solicitude about the reception of every new work. Whatever may be the rank assigned hereafter to his writings, when compared to each other, the writer has most certainly taken his place among the classical poets of his country.